Letters in the Attic

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Chapter 19: The Accident

Clara: -January 1907-

I opened my eyes and hugged the blankets, surrounding myself with their warmth. The frigid cold of January had crept into the very foundations of Deveaux Grove, and I dreaded the first bare step on the chilled wooden floor. Though I did not have the time on hand, the sun had not yet risen, and I saw only a glimmer of sunlight peeking through the horizon when I glanced out of my window. I sat upright and pulled my blankets with me but as I suspected, the floor was cold and my feet recoiled from it as I stepped toward the fireplace. The flame caught quickly, and I watched and savored their heat for over an hour as the sun rose. I had always loved mornings, and I unfailingly awoke before anyone else, personally treated to the sunrise in contented solitude.

Finally warm, I removed myself from the floor and walked to my vanity, still surrounded by the cozy blankets. I glanced at myself in the mirror and uncoiled my hair from its braid, and instead of looking repulsive, it unwound into light waves. Though it was still incredibly early in the morning, my face looked refreshed and I pinched my cheeks to give them an extra glow. I deftly removed my diary from the bookshelf and placed it in my bag. After dressing in a snug umber dress with a thick overcoat, I crept downstairs, desperate not to wake anyone. The cold morning air blew gently on my face as I walked through the door and I noticed the thick cloud of breath as I exhaled. I walked slowly to my grandmother’s house, squinting as the sun rose further into the sky, and I listened to the ground crunch beneath my shoes, and the birds’ faint cries. It was one of the quietest, most peaceful mornings I’d ever experienced. It was somber, and I felt the morning dew moisten my ankles as my feet brushed against the grass. I lifted my gaze from the ground and stood frozen in place as I noticed that my grandmother’s house was completely gone. My heartbeat quickened, and I felt my stomach twist into knots. I don’t know why, I knew they’d destroy the house eventually. It was done, and I had to accept it. I tapped on the oak’s trunk, slipping on its vast, protruding roots.

“I’ve missed you, friend,” I said to the tree. A breeze brushed against its leaves, and they groaned in response. I took my seat in the hollow root patch and removed my pen and diary from the bag. I pressed the pen to the paper, watching as the ink spilled out of the sharp tip, flowing in motion with my hands.

I’d filled nearly six pages of thought before my hand cramped. At this point, the sunshine was beaming through the empty spaces of the tree and it occurred to me that I had not told anyone of my whereabouts. I had convinced myself that they probably hadn’t noticed my absence anyway.

Gathering my bag, I walked back to the house, squinting from the sunshine. I strolled in a daydream to the gate of the white picket fence that surrounded my colossal house when I noticed my father working in the field. I panicked about the time once more when I saw the shadow of Ezra in the barn. We’d shared the most intimate of feelings with one another through our letters but I was shaking at the notion of seeing him again. My thoughts drifted to his hands in my hair and his lips on mine. Despite being twenty years old I’d never been touched in such a way before. Though I was decent-looking, according to my mother, I did not possess the same aptitude for conversing with strangers as my sister did. While she had a multitude of friends and plenty of suitors, I did not, and I preferred it that way. I scurried through the yard, remaining out of sight, and crept around the barn. I watched him hum quietly to himself and pet the horses.

“Are we paying you to pet our horses or to work?” I teased. Ezra stood with his back to me, and I was surprised that he hadn’t tripped into the hay. His bright eyes locked with mine, I wanted to run into his arms and lock my body to his. Before he was able to make a single move or even smile in my direction, my father stomped into the barn. He eyed the two of us, visually pleased that we were standing several feet apart.

“You’re awake early, dear,” he said with a judgemental stare. “What brings you out here? It’s muddy. Why don’t you go back inside?” He eyed me, and then Ezra. I responded with a smile. My father nodded and walked away, treading his boots into the thick, waterlogged ground. I thought I heard Ezra release a breath.

“Meet me near the coolie when it gets dark.”

“Wait for me. I won’t be able to leave until we finish dinner,” I reluctantly admitted.

He reached his hand to my face, brushing his thumb against my bottom lip.

“I will wait,” he said. He turned to meet my father who was calling after him. Though he was filthy and his clothes were not attractive, he was attractive. I nearly forgot it was winter because I was steaming. I walked back to the house with a smile that quickly retreated into a frown when Emma crashed through the front door. I heard an exaggerated “ugh,” followed by my mother’s echoing voice.

“Mama I don’t like him!” Emma said, evidently exasperated. My mom straightened her face and hair before continuing. Emma pouted strongly in her direction.

“You’ve met him once!” my mother argued. “You can’t make a proper judgment until you’ve spoken with him several times, you know this! He is the best suitor for you and he likes you, Emma!” My mother argued.

“How can he like me? He can’t make a proper judgment about me until we’ve spoken several times!” Emma mocked my mother’s words. In a huff, my mother forfeited and ran into the house. I watched, still gratefully unnoticed. Emma ran to the large swing on the property, clutching her face to hide her tears. I was grateful that my mother had given up on providing me with a suitor, but I sympathized with Emma. The many arguments and nights of tears that ensued over the years had eventually caused my mother to stop trying. I considered consoling Emma but Harvey ran after her instead. Eager to avoid the dramatics, I crept inside to the sound of my mother huffing in the parlor. I actively crept as quietly as possible up the stairs to avoid her notice. I set my heavy coat onto the rack and fell into my bed, surrounded by the warmth of the few glowing embers left in the fireplace.

***


Hours passed before my family finally finished dinner and retired to the sitting room. I wrapped myself in a shawl and wandered out of the front door without making a sound, worried that Ezra was not waiting for me. The moon illuminated the grass in the front yard and lit a path to the coolie, where I hoped he was waiting. The cold bit through my clothes and I was immediately overcome with guilt at the thought of Ezra sitting alone in the cold merely to wait for me. I’m not worth that, I told myself. My breath became heavy, and my chest hurt.

“Clara,” he said, revealing himself from the shadows. I froze in place, not from the cold, but from seeing him again. So much heat had risen to my cheeks that I did not even feel the cold anymore. It was ridiculous but I liked it.

“Ezra, you must be freezing.”

When his hands brushed against mine they were solid ice. He smiled boyishly and I knew he was nervous to finally have a moment alone with me after so many months apart. Despite our shared words and feelings through paper, we had not expressed them in person other than the one moment of bliss in his living room. We walked to our spot near the water, and I heard the quiet flow of the coolie. Before we took our seats, his hand was in my hair and I felt his hot breath on my neck.

“I missed you, Clara.”

I tried to say that I missed him too but instead of speaking the words, my body acted instead. My arms wrapped around his neck and I nearly pulled him down. Before I could respond he kissed me, sliding his hands along the small of my back. I gently pushed him against the tree, wanting and wishing that we could do more. He hesitated a moment before I felt his tongue brush against mine. It was a simple act, but one I'd replayed over and over in mind during my time away. We were lost in a moment of rapture as we felt each other for the first time in months. His scent was all around me, and his warmth covered me as I felt his hands brush against my skin. I’d never been so happy to see anyone in my entire life.

“I didn’t notice,” I said breathlessly, disconnecting from his lips. I didn't really know what I was doing, and I suspected he didn't either, but it didn't matter. When one of us did something, the other enjoyed it. We were in sync and I'd never felt anything like it.

“You’re so warm, Ezra,” I said, pushing my body closer to his. I kissed him tenderly now, the passionate, literal heat of the moment calming down. We snuggled together beside the tree, his arms around me.

"Tell me about New Orleans," he requested. "I want to hear the excitement in your voice."

“No one has ever wanted to be around me so much in my life,” I confessed. He took my hand in his and kissed the tips of my iced fingertips.

He shifted his body to look at me. “You’re beautiful,” he said, brushing a hand against my cheek.

I scoffed. “It’s dark.”

For hours we talked and laughed, nestled closely together in the cold. I told him everything about my grandmother and marveled at his genuine interest. Our fingers entwined and listened to the sound of his steady breathing as our conversation grew tired. The stars illuminated the night sky as the night aged, and we counted them together. I watched him as he spoke about the sky with an enthusiasm that I’d never seen before. How did I ever find him distasteful? I asked myself. Eventually, he glanced at the sky and pointed to the small, faded line of orange along the horizon.

“Already?” I asked, angry at the sun for intruding. I nuzzled my face into his neck and breathed in his scent. He responded by kissing my hair.

“I should leave before my mother worries,” he said, reluctantly. His fingers gently caressed mine. He took my cheeks in his hands and kissed me deeply. I savored it like it was the last . Sadness cascaded his features. He stood slowly and extended his arm for me. I took it, and he pulled me into another hug. With one last kiss, we separated, and he walked back to his house. I watched him until he was out of sight, and saw the sun already rising again. With each step back into the house, I felt my feet grow heavy, and my fatigue finally hit me as I crawled up the stairs to my bedroom. I lit the fireplace and removed my clothes before getting into bed. Before my thoughts were allowed to drift, I quickly fell asleep.

***


Elise: -March 1878-

Elise couldn’t concentrate on the dress order she’d taken and threw the dress to the floor after pricking her finger for the fourth time. She looked at the muffled fabric for a mere second before picking it up again, ashamed that she’d tossed a customer’s dress into the dust. She pushed her chair back, ignoring its loud screech against the wooden floor, and went to her bedroom. When she entered, she couldn’t help but stop at look at herself in the mirror. Her hair had been tied up in a braid all night, and she uncoiled it, releasing the red locks to her waist. Sometimes she felt like it was the last piece of her youth she had left, though it was unfair to dwell on her age. She wasn’t even forty years old yet, though at times she felt like she’d passed her prime. Her emerald eyes stared back at her, and for a moment she saw a glimmer of the twenty-year-old she once was. After enduring a sleepless night, however, she didn’t expect to see any beauty in her reflection. Her serene expression slowly changed, as her brow creased and the bright eyes darkened. She’d gotten so used to solitude, though it hadn’t gotten easier over the years.

She walked back to the shop, opening the windows to let in the early sunrise. It was that day again. It was exactly ten years since she’d seen René on the ship in the harbor. The only relief was the revenge she’d gotten on the man who’d ruined their lives. A shudder crept over her as she recalled the smell of his breath and the sound of his scream as she pulled the trigger. She felt a smile form in the corner of her mouth as she pictured him rotting alone in a prison cell. She’d gone to interrogate him several times since his imprisonment, and he’d given her small insignificant details of his time with René, but she did not know which stories were truth or lies. To save herself the heartache, she stopped seeing him entirely. The accounts he recalled about her beloved husband were terrifying, and she cringed at the thought of their abuse, and the dear, loving man they’d changed. It took a long time, but eventually, she didn’t blame René for running. She would not be the same after that either. Though she wanted nothing more than to be with him, she sympathized with the man he must have become. Still, she struggled to walk near the harbor, or even listen to the bells. And each March since then felt like a time of mourning that she could not ignore. It was trivial to let such a thing consume her so thoroughly, but she couldn’t help it. Though she always felt the pain, it was always worse when she remembered how close she was to him. She could still remember the face she saw on the ship, scarred and battered as it faded away into the distance, taking him farther from her with each motion.

Elise glanced around her shop and clicked her tongue at her apathy. She’d allowed The Painted Ribbon to acquire quite a mess, and she winced at the amount of dust that the dress on the floor had unsettled. She stood from the table, removing the “closed” sign from the door. There aren’t any customers anyway, she convinced herself.

“Mama, are you okay?”

She had not heard Renée creep down the stairs. Nearly seventeen, Renée had grown into a winsome young woman, but her temperament was more like her grandfather Benedict than Elise or René. She’d grown cold and stern, and Elise felt responsible for the change. Renée needed her father, and Elise could not give that to her. She’d endured the snares of others who judged her for not remarrying, but felt constant guilt that her daughter had also heard and felt the comments. It wasn’t conventional for a woman of her age to still be an unmarried widow, but she could not and would not marry anybody else. If René was alive...It was her curse. Her bright, happy, young daughter was now a sulky, rude teenager who spoke to her as little as possible. She returned from school only for holidays and wrote seldomly. They spoke only in whispers, and Elise still felt the sting of loneliness even when Renée visited. Her only companion was Charlotte, but even after ten years, she could hardly call Charlotte a friend. Her main source of happiness was the letters from Peter and Camille and the news of their lives. She missed them dearly, and though she’d seen them a couple of times since her return to New Orleans, it was not enough, and she craved their company more each day.

“Not really, my dear,” Elise replied in a mellow tone. Renée contemplated this for a moment, but instead of comforting her mother, she remained quiet, unsure of what to say. Her hair was loosely arranged in a braid with strands falling into her face, framing her cheeks. Elise looked at her daughter with pride, but Renée shrunk away. It had been a long time since she’d let her beauty shine.

“Where are you going?” Elise asked, observing her daughter’s nice clothes.

Renée glanced at the clock. “It is almost noon. I am going to the festival with Elijah, don’t you remember? You told me that Elijah was welcome for dinner.” Elise nodded, recalling Renée’s plans, and focused on sticking the thread into the needed without injuring herself again. Without another word, Renée pulled the door open and walked out. They couldn’t communicate anymore. Elise felt tears well up behind her eyes and promptly retreat when she heard the mail drop to the floor through the letterbox. The tears disappeared when she saw a letter from Camille.

My treasured friend,

I received your last letter, and I apologize that I have not responded sooner. I am sorry to hear that you are feeling lonely. I have some news to share with you, and I hope that it fills you with as much joy as it has for us. Peter is approaching his fiftieth birthday, and with that, he will be selling his shop. His retirement and inheritance have provided us with stable finances, and we are planning to use this blessing to raise our children outside of the city. Peter’s inheritance included the shop that you are living in and a sizeable property in St. Martinville. Within the next four months, we will be relocating to St. Martinville, and we are overjoyed that we will be closer to you and Renée. Please, respond swiftly. I am eager to hear your thoughts on this news. We send our love to you and Renée and pray every day that you both remain in good health.

Your ever loving and devoted friend,

Camille Dubois

As Elise absorbed the news, she wanted to cry out with joy. She quickly responded to Camille’s letter and took it to the post office. When she returned with high spirits, she rushed around the kitchen, humming to herself as she prepared dinner. After buying strawberries at the market, Elise decided to embark on making a strawberry pie. Taking a chair from the table, she stood and grasped the cabinets to hold her balance as she reached the top shelf for the mixing bowl. She was too excited, moving too fast, and not paying attention. As she grabbed the bowl, the legs of the chair tilted. When she fell her head struck the countertop in a painful blow, and her unconscious body hit the hardwood. Her knees caught the fall, and the weight of her body crushed them.

***


When Renée and Elijah walked through the front door of the shop the bell rang loudly, vibrating through the cold, unmoving building. She immediately fell the uneasy stillness of her home as they entered the room. Something was wrong.

“Renée!” Elijah hollered, running to the kitchen. The shop was so small it took only moments for Elise’s body to come into view, lying on the floor lifeless. With shaking hands, Renée gently pressed her fingers to Elise’s neck and nearly cried with joy when she felt the steady pulse beneath. How long had she been like this? Renée glanced at the clock, which was ticking toward four o’clock.

“Elijah please get your mother!” Renée ordered, desperate not to panic. When he left, she lifted Elise’s head from the floor, staring at her hard, wondering what had happened. The stern seventeen-year-old wasn’t prone to hysterics, and she waited patiently for Charlotte. She stroked her mother’s hair silently grateful that she hadn’t returned home to a tragedy. She’d already lost one parent.

When Elijah returned with his mother, a doctor followed them shortly after. Nobody could get in touch with anyone in town faster than Charlotte, and by the time he arrived at examined Elise, it wasn’t even five o’clock yet. The doctor, with the help of Elijah, placed Elise in bed, and all they could do was wait for her to regain consciousness. Elise’s knees and legs were bruised and scraped, swollen twice as large as her slender limbs usually were. The doctor wrapped them in plaster and set a cold cloth on her head. There was nothing they could do but wait for her to wake up and explain what happened. For the first time in years, Renée stood at her mother’s side and waited patiently for her to heal. The doctor glanced at her with sad eyes.

“What happened, Roy?” Renée asked, motioning toward her unconscious mother.

“She fell from her chair, and-” Renée cut him off.

“Obviously. What is wrong with her?”

Roy, the doctor she’d known her entire life, sneered at her rudeness. “She’s broken both of her legs. The impact of the fall crushed the patellas in both legs and fractured the tibia in her right leg. Her hips were also affected by the pressure of the fall, and the muscles around her hips and thighs are bruised.” He indicated the locations of her injuries as he spoke. “As she was left alone for so many hours,” he said, sending a disapproving glance at Renée, “she will require more time to recuperate since I was not notified sooner. She will be unable to walk for a few months, and I needed to wrap the legs to prevent movement. I have chloroform for you to administer, should she require relief. She will need your constant attention and help, and I am afraid she will not be able to work from her desk. Thankfully, it seems that her work can be done within the confines of her bed. You will need to assist her with meals, empty her bedpan when necessary, and leave the house in her stead when needed. She will rely on you in my absence. I can make daily calls if you like, to ensure that she heals properly.” Roy’s tone lacked in faith and before Renée could respond to him, Charlotte shuffled past her and Elijah.

“I will help her with business. Anything she needs, Roy,” Charlotte said.

Roy nodded. “Call upon me if you need. I will come back tomorrow.” He gathered his tools and medicine bottles and left, checking Elise’s vitals and bruises before leaving the building.

“She will not be able to walk, you know,” Charlotte said, turning to Renée. “You need to help your mother. You’ve done nothing but treat her disrespectfully, and I’ve kept my mouth shut by her request but you, child, have not been good to her. I will help as much as I can and I know Elijah will too,” she sent a smile at her son, “but she will not be able to move from this bed for weeks and you need to understand that. You have no idea what your mother has been through and it’s time that you appreciated her.” Renée hardly reacted before Elise’s soft voice came from the bed.

Charlotte rushed to the bed and sat next to her, taking her hands. “I can’t move my legs.”

Renée and Elijah approached the bed too, eager to hear how she was feeling.

“I know, dear,” Charlotte responded sorrowfully. “The doctor tells us that they are both broken. He has given you a dose of chloroform to ease the pain. Renée and I are going to take care of you, but you are bedridden until you heal properly.”

Elise sighed in defeat. “I am blessed to have such wonderful people looking out for me.” Renée kissed her mother’s forehead. It was warm and beaded with sweat.

“I love you, mama. I’ll take care of you I promise.”

Elise’s face softened at her daughter’s words. “Please, bring my stationary. I need to write to Camille.”

***


It took only days for Camille to reply to Elise’s letters.

Renée brushed her mother’s hair. “She offered to let us live with her? What about your business?” Elise re-read the letter before responding.

“Peter has offered to take us in permanently,” she answered. “He said I don’t need to work anymore.”

Renée laughed. “If he inherited that much money, it’s a wonder why he bothered to work all these years. He inherited it more than ten years ago.”

Elise laughed. “Yes, but it’s accrued quite a lot of interest. Enough for them and us to live comfortably. We would live in the country, though. I know how much you love New Orleans,” Elise said, observing her daughter’s disappointment. Renée scanned her mother’s fragile state. She was healing, but not enough.

“You can’t work like this. And I am not as talented with a needle and thread as you, as much as I try. I think this is the right choice, mama,” Renée said, placing the brush down. She noticed the hesitation in Elise’s face. “It’s okay.”

“Accept the offer. It’s best for your health, and that’s more important. I might like the country.” She was trying to understand, and though she didn’t want to move away from New Orleans, she equally didn’t want to make Elise’s life more difficult than it already was.

“Sometimes, as uncomfortable as it’s been, I consider my fall a blessing from God,” Elise said, taking her daughter’s hand.

Renée winced at her mother’s words. “Why on Earth would you say that?”

“It’s brought us together again.” Renée returned Elise’s smile and left the bed to grab her mother’s stationery. Elise surrendered to her condition. Her business was suffering, and she’d not been able to leave her room for weeks. She took the stationery from her daughter and wrote Camille, accepting her and Peter’s offer.

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